Geneva (AFP)

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday that the Ebola outbreak, which has killed nearly 1,700 people since last summer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is now a global health emergency.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was "time for the world to take note" of the outbreak, but he recommended that DRC's borders with its neighbors remain open.

The UN specialized agency on health made its decision after the discovery of a fatal case in the DRC's second largest city, Goma, on the border with Rwanda. In June, two cases were also detected in neighboring Uganda.

The global health emergency is an exceptional measure, which has been declared only four times by WHO: in 2009 for the H1N1 flu, in 2014 for polio, in 2014 for the Ebola epidemic which made more than 11,300 deaths in three countries in West Africa (Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone) and in 2016 for the Zika virus.

"The risk of Ebola spreading in the region remains high, but it remains low outside," said Dr. Tedros.

The virus is transmitted to humans through contact with either infected animals (usually dehorning, cooking, or eating) or with biological fluids from infected persons.

In a statement, WHO said the global health emergency statement did not prejudge the effectiveness of local health teams, "but was rather a measure to recognize potential risks at the local and regional levels and the need for 'intensified and coordinated action to tackle it'.

"It is crucial that states do not use the global emergency status as an excuse to impose trade and travel restrictions that would negatively impact the (health) response and the lives of the people in the region" stressed Professor Robert Steffen, head of the WHO Emergency Committee.

The experts gathered in Geneva since Wednesday noon also expressed their "disappointment about the delays in funding" the aid.

In particular, the Committee recognized that there was a shortage of vaccines deemed effective in countering the epidemic. He recommended that WHO request an effort from States and laboratories.

The current epidemic is the tenth since 1976 in the DRC and the second worst in the history of Ebola, following the epidemic that hit West Africa in 2014-2016.

© 2019 AFP